Tuesday, May 28, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 169, A Review: "The Flamingo Kid" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

It's the perfect summer refreshment.


Hartford Stage's world premiere presentation of  "The Flamingo Kid" is a sweet and sentimental musical treat with plenty of dash, snap and verve to entice and charm, move and beguile and lovingly transport its audience through the lens of memory back to the summer of 1963, a time when parents and kids, unlike today, shared a palpable chemistry that was simple, direct, pleasing and heartfelt.

Like the 1984 motion picture, which was hilariously directed by the late Garry Marshall, the stage adaptation is a tender-hearted tribute to what makes us human, what makes us cry for acceptance, what makes us rebel or take chances and finally, what makes us find and grow into our own identity, whatever the path we choose to follow in life.

With a book by Robert L. Freedman ("A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder"), "The Flamingo Kid" transports Brooklyn teenager Jeffrey Winnick from his modest homestead in the borough to Long Island's exclusive El Flamingo beach club where he finds a job, a paycheck, a mentor and a girlfriend, all smack-dab in the summer of 1963. It's a tale that's been told before, but Freedman, savvy writer that he is, takes his inspiration, in part, from Neil Simon comedies, John Hughes movies and finally, from Garry Marshall and Bo Goldman who co-wrote the movie. That said, he crafts a no-nonsense musical comedy that's worthwhile, sugary, candy-coated and lots and lots of fun. And the story itself, despite its nostalgic undercurrents, speaks directly to today's audience.

Like the film, his musical is rife with both humor and pathos about Brooklyn, Jewish parents, leaving home, beach clubs, sex, sun tan oil, umbrella cocktails, high stakes card games, old age, flirting, prejudice, society, social class, fancy cars, infidelity, dreams, confrontations, monetary obsessions and double-talking shysters. That's a lot of plot for a musical of this size but Freedman never lets things get too talky or too preachy. Instead, he moves things along swiftly and agreeably, always knowing what to emphasize, when to take a breath, when to insert a song or dance, when to cajole, when to surprise and how to frame and master a silly joke and punchline. No matter what he has up his sleeve, it all works quite swimmingly.

Here, as in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," Freedman gets the adrenaline pumping in true escapist fashion, prompting chuckles and huge belly laughs in all the right places. He also knows when to knock you off balance with an amusing, well-orchestrated surprise or two or how to tug at your heart strings when it comes time to become serious during a heated family confrontation or disagreement. "The Flamingo Kid" also contains some amusing cultural Jewish-isms and slang that have become part of the American Yiddish culture. Kvetchy, whiny and midrashic, they too are delivered amusingly under Freedman's orchestration with well-intentioned chutzpah and delight..

As director of both the Hartford Stage and Broadway productions of "Anastasia" and "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," Darko Tresnjak crafted two very different musicals that unfolded with surprising appeal, complexity and satisfying snap. As a showcase for his obvious talents, each production benefited from his colorful creative template, his instinctive casting and his cinematic flair for storytelling. "The Flamingo Kid" continues that proficient, articulate greatness.

Lively, funny and sweetly nostalgic, the two-act musical is a bankably unique, supremely confident production that retains the magic, wonderment and angst of the 1984 feature film, offset by Tresnjak's added layers of nostalgia, whimsy and sentiment. It's the same story, yes, but set to music, it's retelling is even more profound, layered and nuanced. Here, things are fast and fluid, direct and balanced with nary a halt or hiccup in the proceedings. Tresnjak knows exactly what he wants and, of course, he runs with it, backed by a creative team of savvy designers who give the musical the pulse, flair and eye-popping theatricality it demands.

Staging the two-act musical, Tresnjak doesn't waste a single second. Pacing is everything here and as director, he knows when to let the material breathe, when to take a pause, when to let things settle and ferment and how to play a scene both dramatically, comically and musically. Here, as in "Anastasia" and "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," set changes, musical numbers, conversations, dances and sound and light cues are brilliantly timed and executed without the slightest hesitation. At the same tine, Tresnjak gives his production a three-dimensional kick, thrust and feel that works to full advantage from scene to scene, song to song, act to act. And that, in turn, that is what makes this production big, eye-catching and entirely watchable.

The musical score for "The Flamingo Kid," written by Freedman (lyrics) and Scott Frankel (music), contains 27 songs. They are "Another Summer Day in Brooklyn," "The El Flamingo," "She's An Angel," "He's No Angel," "Another Summer Day in Brooklyn (Reprise)," "A Plumber Knows," "Sweet Ginger Brown," "The World According to Phil, Part 1," "Never Met a Boy Like You," "Cabana Boy," "Cabana Boy (Reprise)," "The World According to Phil, Part 2," "This Is My House," "Rockaway Rhumba," "Act I Finale," "In It to Win It," "My Son, the Big Shot," "Blowin' Hot and Cold," "Under the Stars," "Not For All the Money in the World," "The Cookie Crumbles," "A Mother Knows," "Sweet Ginger Brown (Reprise)," "Rockaway Rhumba (Reprise), " "Never Met a Boy Like You (Reprise)," "Fathers and Sons" and "Act II Finale."

The songs themselves, all of which are important to the advancement of the story and the many different characters who sing them are sincere, original, big-hearted and joyous. Reflective of the show's 1960's setting, they unfold with a poppy verve and dazzle that is deft and irresistibly catchy. There are a lot of them, which means a lot of different things here and there, but they all fit seamlessly into the framework of the story without any form of calculation. Both Frankel and Freedman not only excel at telling varying stories through song, but they also craft a musical world that ripples with hope and good cheer, but doesn't ignore the hardships of the times, society's different classes and prejudices, the rags-to-riches euphoria of great wealth, the discovery of young love and the excitement that comes from following your dreams and being yourself despite the odds around you.

Musical direction for "The Flamingo Kid" is provided by Thomas Murray whose credits include the Broadway productions of "Anastasia," "A Little Night Music," "Honeymoon in Vegas," "The Bridges of Madison County" and "Light in the Piazza." Then and now, Murray is an accomplished musician who understands the heart, speed and pace of the music portrayed here, its fine-tuned details and undercurrents, its lyrical warmth and spirit, its song-by-song momentum, its periodic dips in style and presentation, its melodic delirium and its humorous hauteur.

Working alongside his exceptional orchestral team (Paul Staroba, Roy Wiseman,  Lu Friedman, Charles DeScarfino, John Mastroianni, Michael Schuster, Seth Bailey, Don Clough, Jordan Jacobson, Jamie Thorne, Nick DiFabio), Murray has great fun with the show's clean, witty and sharply focused musical score. Under his tutelage, the music is fresh, impassioned and individually skillful. All of the vocals are attractive sounding and reach their intended potential. That zest and command stands out over both acts and often prompts an exhilaration that's impossible to resist. Then again, that's the point, isn't it?

For 'The Flamingo Kid," Denis Jones, who also choreographed Broadway's "Tootsie," uses dance movement, dance patterns and splendid choreographic positioning that is cute, sugary, atmospheric, nostalgic and flavorful. There's not only a wonderful fluidity about it, which serves the material well, but it is perfectly in sync with the era itself, its coming-of-age undercurrents, its sun-drenched Long Island beach setting and the very different characters who habitat the two-act musical. It's decidedly unique and inventive. It's all in good fun. It gets the adrenaline pumping. It explodes in every color of the rainbow. It also makes you want to jump up out of your seat and partake in the festivities. Conga, anyone?

In the lead role of the wide-eyed Brooklyn teen Jeffrey Winnick, Carnegie Mellon graduate Jimmy Brewer's talent is bright, balanced, thrilling and full of life. It's the kind of breakout performance that not only conjures up memories of Aaron Tveit in "Next to Normal," Ben Platt in "Dear Evan Hansen" and Charlie Stemp in "Half a Sixpence" and "Hello, Dolly" but one that will no doubt thrust Brewer into the Broadway/West End limelight in much the same way as this illustrious threesome. A star is born?  Yes, indeed

With a smile that's bright and twinkly, a spring and step that suggests a sly fox on the make and a fresh-faced innocence and boyish simplicity reflective of any popular 1960's television sit-com ("My Three Sons," for example), Brewer has both stage presence and stamina along with a confidence and sparkle that makes him a complete standout. There's a grace, dash and innocence in his performance. The part of Jeffrey is chock full of noticeable vitality and enthusiasm. He clearly enjoys being on stage alone or surrounded by his equally engaging cast. His singing is assured and polished. And when it comes time to dance, he jumps right in making it look like a spur of the moment discovery rather than something that's been rehearsed over and over and performed night after night.

In the 2017 production of "Rags" at the Goodspeed, Samantha Massell, in the role of Rebecca, offered a moving, seamlessly executed portrayal of a young Jewish immigrant living in New York City's lower East side, circa 1910. It was an award-winning performance that was timely, relevant and passionate, offset by a commanding singing voice that pulsed with both melody and feeling.

In "The Flamingo Kid," Massell plays Karla Samuels, the Brody's free-thinking feminist niece who finds romance at the El Flamingo with the lovestuck Jeffrey. Again, the actress shines, using that same abundant energy and verve that categorized her work in "Rags." Vocally, she makes every song she sings, entirely her own. And working alongside Brewer, she naturally embraces her character's passionate feelings and quiet longing for her weak-at-the-knees suitor.

Adam Heller, as Arthur, Jeffrey's noble, working-class father, invests the role with an aching, heartfelt charm, sincerity and pulse that resonates particularly well throughout the two-act musical. Liz Larsen who plays Ruth, Jeffrey's mom and Arthur's devoted wife brings the right amount of pathos, sentiment and understanding to the part. Her scenes with both Heller and Brewer are fraught with real, honest-to-goodness emotion and resolve.

Marc Kudisch throws himself head first into the scene-stealing role of the brash, egotistical, prejudiced Phil Brody, It's a showy role that the actor crafts to such devious perfection, you never once get the sense that he is acting. He doesn't just play the part, he owns it. So much so, that when he gets his just comeuppance during the second half of Act II, you can't help but snicker with real delight. Lesli Margherita, as Phyllis Brody, Phil's flirty but unhappy wife, is a constant delight whenever she's on stage. Her performance is full of playful wit and sarcasm along with a shimmering sexiness that is utterly convincing and delightful. Her bold, uninhibited glances at the young men  who populate the El Flamingo are a real hoot.

Poignant, cheerful and full of marvelous wit, "The Flamingo Kid" is astonishingly good musical theater. It is jam packed with energy, clarity and rhythmic musicality. Darko Tresnjak's expertly paced direction is expressed with playful abandon by his stellar ensemble cast.  The show itself is gorgeous to look at. The songs and dances are rife with 1960's innocence, spunk and spirit. And finally, "The Flamingo Kid" brings Darko Tresnjak's classy tenure at Hartford Stage to a close with a fine, uplifting, memorable flourish.

Photos of "The Flamingo Kid" courtesy of T. Charles Erickson

"The Flamingo Kid" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50  Church St., Hartford, CT), now through June 15.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.
website: hartfordstage.org

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 168, A Review: "A Doll's House, Part 2" (Long Wharf Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" was a play about the emancipation of women.in 19th century society. Though the playwright stated he "was not a feminist," he did believe, however, that women had an equal right as men did to develop as individuals, find their own position in society and upon doing so, "become complete human beings."

In "A Doll's House, Part 2," a wildly conducive work that continues Ibsen's hypnotic story without the words and revolutionary influences of the celebrated playwright, it's been 15 years since Nora Helmer slammed the door on her husband, her children and her past and went out into the world to create a brand new life for herself with no connection to her bourgeois life or none to explain her curious existence far beyond the confines of her 19th century, middle-class home in Norway.

That slammed door, which reverberated across the world with stirring repercussions when "A Doll's House" was first performed, was now re-opened. And with it, came all sorts of questions about Ibsen's celebrated heroine, who, in her own words, admitted that she was living in a fictitious world  of "sugarplums and playthings" having been denied her dignity as a woman, which, as the end of "A Doll's House," prompts both her exit and rebellion.

Where did she go?
How did she survive?
Was she spurned or shunned?
Was her exit a smart or reckless move?
Who did she become?
How did she support herself?
Did she find happiness?
More importantly, did Torvald Helmer actually file for divorce? And if he did, where exactly is the legal document proving the decree absolute?
And oh yes, why is she back?

Fodder for sophisticated arguments?
The dart of  Ibsen's vitriolic pen so packed with many hidden forces, finds itself dabbed in freshly minted black ink.

In Long Wharf's invigorating, wildly pumped up staging of "A Doll's House, Part 2," those questions and more are addressed and answered  in this smart, freestanding, oddball entertainment of sorts that thrusts Ibsen's characters in a brand new light with a brand new story that is edgy, crazy, profound, juicy, comforting, strange and passive-aggressive. From the start, it's obvious that this theatrical piece was not created to equal or copy the dramatic sweep, originality and frenzy of  "A Doll's House." Instead, it simply takes its cue from Ibsen's landmark play and seizes the opportunity to become its own period voice through a more contemporary lens.
With Will Davis as director, it works ever so agreeably to engage, titillate and indulge. It is also completely different from every other "Doll's House" before it, including the original "Part 2" Broadway production that starred Laurie Metcalf and the most recent incarnation, directed by Jenn Thompson at TheaterWorks in Hartford.

Written by playwright Lucas Hnath, "A Doll's House, Part 2" is peppered with a knowledge and understanding of Ibsen's original work and the playwright's visionary thoughts and themes about marriage, rapacity, individualism, divorce, hypocrisy, secret lives, fearless spirits and doomed relationships. But the comparisons stop there. Up close, this isn't an homage to Ibsen or something steeped in nostalgia despite many references to the far superior "A Doll's House" and its key story points. Instead, Hnath gives his work a decidedly juiced-up modern heartbeat, offset by a very feminist political message and contemporary language and slang including the words "fuck," "shit" "pissed" and so on. It's hardly jarring or controversial. It's just not Ibsen - style, structure, position or language. And, for the most part, that's o.k. "A Doll's House, Part 2" dances to its own, in-your-face individuality.

What's important here are the four central character's of the piece -  Nora, Torvald, Emmy and Anne Marie -  their evolution, their growth, their thoughts, their idiosyncrasies, their neuroses - as seen through the eyes of Hnath. Continuing Ibsen's much admired story, the playwright concocts a deft, imaginative, well-versed drama with words, passages and tongue-twisters that are assiduous, rhythmic, emotional, crafty and purposely fucked up. There's a lot going on in this plucky 95 minute drama as this completely messed-up quartet wrestle with ideas, dilemmas, conflicts, stumbling blocks and compromises as people from a another century.

As penned by Hnanth, most of "A Doll's House, Part 2" is edgy, well positioned and smartly nuanced. In particular, the arguments, the revelations, the confrontations, the disturbing melodies, the prevalent notions, the atmospheric idioms and the wide awake language. It's a play that stands proudly and reverently on its own but has absolutely nothing to do with Henrik Ibsen. Then again, that's the point. Despite the familiarity of the characters, Hnanth  tries to make everything that happened in "A Doll's House" seem new again. It is why this sequel exists.

At Long Wharf, "A Doll's House, Part 2"  is being staged by Will Davis, an award-winning director and choreographer whose credits include "Evita," "Men on Boats," "Sorry Robot," "Road Show," "Everybody," "The Carpenter" and "Duat." A director with a strong sense of avant-garde, revolutionary inertia and crafty humor all rolled up into one, he is not only a natural fit for Hnanth's sequel, but one who seizes the opportunity to bend the rules, fuck with your senses and take you on a journey like no other. He also finds the humor in dramatic lines that include "I'm pissed" and "Fuck you, Nora."

As director, Davis uses broad, strong colors and marvelously timed vaudevillian flippancy and nuttiness to make his interpretation dance, sparkle and take flight. Mind you, none of this has anything to do with Ibsen, including Arnulfo Maldonado's colorful, but strangely misfired non-Norwegian setting, but in Davis' eyes, none of that really matters. He, nonetheless, fuels "A Doll's House, Part 2" with an energized fluidity and scope that's so inventive and theatrical, you sit back in amazement, reveling in his directorial genius, boldness and individuality. This man is so creative, he could probably stage "Evita" against the virtually uninhabited backdrop of Antarctica and get away with it.

Here, however, his directorial approach is personal, stylized and conscientious. He gets the story, the characters and their evolution before the final fade out. He also understands the mechanics associated with period drama from its confined staging and rangy acting techniques to how to build and shape a sequence in terms of character, line delivery and story advancement. He also takes chances and liberties with the material and runs with it. In particular, his use of lighting, his use of sound effects, including lots of buzzing bees, birds, flying insects and a cuckoo clock. As director, he also lets the piece sit and breathe and often lets the characters pause and reflect, completely lost in space, re-examining their innermost thoughts and emotions. It's a directorial conceit that he pulls off quite swimmingly.

"A Doll's House, Part 2" stars Maggie Bofill as Nora Helmer, Jorge Cordova as as Torvald Helmer, Mia Katigbak as Anne Marie and Sasha Diamond as Emmy Helmer. All four deliver exceptional, full-boded performances under Davis' command and tutelage and wear Dana Botez's unusually different but colorful "Doll's House" costuming with tailored precision, finesse and flair.

Bofill, an actress with a commanding, natural stage presence, takes the lead role of the outspoken, fiercely-independent Nora Helmer, grabs it by the horns, makes it her own and runs with it for a full 95 minutes never once losing character, perspective or focus. It's a compelling, progressive turn that deftly shows how the character of Nora has evolved over 15 years and developed into a woman of power, wealth and substance. It is also one that allows the actress to dance to her own rhythmic beat, succumb to the wit, charm and explosiveness of the material before her and interact wholeheartedly with the other on-stage players. In the pivotal role of house servant Anne Marie, Mia Katigbak offers a strong, intuitive performance that sparks immediate interest whenever she's on stage. Her performance, often true to the character created by Ibsen whenever the playwright permits it to be, is layered, compassionate, driven and bruised. Elsewhere, her interaction with Bofill  is involved and personal and one coupled with fundamental grace, purpose and precision.

As Nora's husband Torvald, Jorge Cordova  looks and acts very much like the controlling, pompous, priggish, intolerable, self-absorbed character channeled by Ibsen. Acting wise, he gives a showstopping performance that is rich in nuance, drama, satire and shamelessness. His command of the play script and his role in the story never once wavers for a second. He also has great fun with the play's over-the top flourishes (just watch what he does with his costuming whenever it comes time for him to sit down in the play's only chair) and it's playful idiosyncrasies. His comic/dramatic rapport with Bofill is completely palpable, fiery and intense. As the teen aged Emmy Helmer, one of Nora's abandoned children, Sasha Diamond is properly aggressive, spastic and off-the-wall, a character conceit the actress invests with playful, wicked abandon. Under Davis' direction, her emotions are real, goofy and notably centered, as is her hilariously timed eating sequence that has the actress conversing while munching and picking on some green stuff ( string beans, perhaps). It's absolutely hilarious.

Inspired by the original Henrik Ibsen play about the denunciation of a doomed marriage and its door-slamming denouement, "A Doll's House, Part 2" exists in its own contemplative world as playwright Lucas Hnath pays homage to the 1879 masterwork and offers a newly engaged work in the modern vernacular. Acerbic, provocative, anxious and intentionally wicked, "A Doll's House, Part 2" makes for inspired, edgy, character-driven theatre. It's quick, hypnotic and well-played. It toys with your senses. It gets you thinking. It is performed by a quartet of marvelously seasoned actors. And finally, there's Will Davis, a theatrical impresario who makes the impossible happen with a trip of the light fantastic that's abstract, immersive, ground-breaking and highly original.

Photos of "A Doll's House, Part 2" courtesy of T. Charles Erickson

A Doll's House, Part 2" is being staged at Long Wharf Theatre (222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT), now through May 26.
For tickets or more information, please call (203) 787-4282.
website: longwharf.org

Monday, May 13, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 167, A Review: "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" (Connecticut Cabaret Theatre)

By James V Ruocco

Single men.
Single women.
Suburban married life.
Doting parents.
Sonograms and slide shows.
Old age.
Wakes and funerals.
Phone calls, break ups, deadly conversations, bridesmaids, sports talk and spending the night alone.

In "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," the smash off-Broadway musical about late 20th century relationships that ran for 5,003 performances at N.Y's  Westside Theatre, those topics and others are hilariously addressed in full, unadulterated glory in Connecticut Cabaret Theatre's  buoyant, high-spirited, big-hearted revival.

Feel-Good Friendly.

"I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" is a sweet-sounding musical diversion with a let's-have-fun concept and plotline designed solely to entertain, dish out tart one-liners, serve up hummable songs and get you laughing, laughing and laughing.

Its message: the discovery and embracement of one's authentic self with equal wants and wises.

As written by Joe DiPietro, the two-act musical unfolds through a series of happy, lighthearted song-and sketch vignettes, aptly matched to segments titled "Not Tonight," "Busy, Busy, Busy," "Tear Jerk," "The Lasagna Incident," "Satisfaction Guaranteed," "Whatever Happened to Baby's Parents?" "Sex and the Married Couple," "Funerals Are for Dating," and many others.

Staging "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," director Kris McMurray crafts a smooth, steadied musical romp that amuses, surprises and slaps you silly with its cheerful, well-choreographed diversity. Given the show's simplistic framework and swift-evolving scenic musings, McMurray takes tight reign of the material and shakes and stirs it to perfection, offering a plethora of different scenarios that glide merrily along capturing the intended wit, energy and accountability dictated by the play script.

What's especially nice about this production is that McMurray lets each segment build and evolve naturally in real time. Nothing is rushed. Nothing is overplayed. Nothing is thrown in to get that extra laugh or two. Nothing bears the slightest hint of calculation or repetition. McMurray is much to clever for that. He also doesn't go for the obvious. Here, as in the recent "The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged)," he lets the material speak for itself and find it's own special  brand of humor. Yes, he helps it along from time to time. Yes, he knows exactly how to get a laugh. Yes, he takes his cast of four though the paces. Yes, he knows what buttons to push. The good news is that you never really see it coming, which, in turn, keeps things always fresh and exciting.

Another plus about this production is the fluidity of it all.
As the musical evolves, the quartet of actors involved are asked to change characters and costumes at the drop of a hat, a belt and a buckle or a pair of high heels and sneakers. It's a crazy concept that requires everyone to switch gears immediately and plunge headfirst into the show's powder-keg of different people and personalities without hesitation. One false move and it's over - just like that. Luckily, that never happens here. McMurray, decided showman that he is, has everything timed to the millisecond (on stage and off), which keeps things merrily in perspective. It's that kind of  gamesmanship that keeps "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" spinning as McMurray uses various comic ploys and maneuvers to give the material added weight and perspective. He succeeds swimmingly.

"I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" features 21 songs, written by Jimmy Roberts (music) and Joe DiPietro (lyrics). They are: "Prologue," "Cantata for a First Date," "We Had it All," "A Stud and a Babe," "Single Man Drought," "Why? 'Cause I'm a Guy," "Tear Jerk," "I Will be Loved Tonight," "Hey There, Single Gal/Guy," "He Called Me," "Wedding Vows," "Cantata Reprise," "Always a Bridesmaid," "The Baby Song," "Marriage Tango," "On the Highway of  Love," "Waiting Trio," "Shouldn't I Be Less in Love With You?" "I Can Live With That," "Epilogue" and "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change."
All of them are smartly connected to the book's "relationship and love" conceit and bring a plot-driven sense of pulse and musicality to the piece, enriched by witty lyrics, playful exchanges and plushly orchestrated sounds, tones and movements. Nothing is out of place. Nothing is thrown in to make the musical longer than it is. Everything is exactly right for every vignette each song is connected too and the different characters who are asked to bring them vividly to live.

At the piano, CJ Janis, the orchestral alternate for musical director TJ Thompson, plays the score exactly as written, reveling in its rhapsodic dimensions, artistic tilts  and thematic threads. A brilliant, animated pianist with a take-charge yet relaxed artistry similar in style and technique to the late musical great Richard DeRosa, Janis, assisted by Jean Conners on the violin, has remarkable lucidity and breadth, headlong energy and savvy, poetic flight. In turn, the music he unleashes is crisp and snappy, true and sparkling and always mindful of the elaboration of themes set forth by the musical's originators.

As a musician, Janis is also cognizant of the actor's themselves, their relationship to the story, the songs they have to sing and the scene-by-scene evolution of the piece over a two act time frame. Whereas some musicians simply play the music in tandem arrangement, thus, forcing the singers to stay in completely sync with the band, Janis, instead, follows his singers, allowing them to take a breath or two and grasp the intended meaning of the music they are about to sing or continue singing. In turn, things unfold with a more relaxed, spontaneous , natural feel, which is exactly the case here.

Under the expert musical supervision of Thompson, the stellar "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" cast fills the small, intimate stage of the Connecticut Cabaret Theatre with confident, full-bodied singing, matched vocally by the right spirit, strength, volume, contour, tone and sentiment. They don't just sing the songs, they make them their own. Under Thompson's tutelage, the harmonies are lush and sweet-sounding, the duets are solos are ripe with freshness and emotional warmth and everything else hops, skips and resonates with decided purpose and musical showmanship.

The two-act musical stars Nick D'Angelo, Cristin Marshall, Jon Escobar and Kristen Iovene.
No strangers to musical theatre or comedy, all four are exceptionally fine performers with impeccable comic timing, personalities and improvisational versatility who adapt freely and effortlessly to the mounting mayhem of the piece, its sentimentality, its romanticism, its whimsy and its quick-change artistry.  They are polished. They are funny. They are musical. They never once drop character or lose sight of what's going on around them. They interact and intertwine engagingly. And vocally, they are solid, diverse singers with beautiful voices, song styles and phrasing that connect and compliment the songs they are asked to sing together, alone or as a duet.

"I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" is a sweet and sentimental look at love, romance, marriage and dating. It is pleasant and diverting. It is performed by an extremely talented cast of four, all of whom have fine, pitch-perfect singing voices and a wide-open acting range. The music is heartfelt and pleasurable. Kris McMurray's wistful, carefree direction is full of warmth and wit, which makes the show pulse with feeling. It  does that and so much more with a fine flourish.

"I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" is being staged at Connecticut Cabaret Theatre (31-33 Webster Square Rd., Berlin, CT), now through June 15.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 829-1248.
website: ctcabaret.com

Saturday, May 11, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 166: "The Music Man," "The Engagement Party" and "Twelfth Night" Top the 29th Annual Connecticut Critic's Circle Nominations

"The Music Man" at Goodspeed Musicals

By James V. Ruocco

The Goodspeed Musicals' revival of "The Music Man," Yale Rep's "Twelfth Night" and "The Engagement Party" at Hartford Stage are among the major contenders in competition for this year's 29th annual "Connecticut Critic's Circle Awards."

The event, which recognizes the best professional Equity theatre in the state will take place June 3 at the Goodspeed (6 Main St., East Haddam, CT). The ceremony will be hosted by Jennifer Cody who will be featured in "Mamma Mia!" this June at Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs. She will be playing Rosie.

Showtime is 7 p.m.

In contention are the following Connecticut based theaters: Hartford Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, Goodspeed Musicals, Playhouse on Park, Music Theatre of Connecticut, Westport Country Playhouse, Yale Rep, Connecticut Repertory Theatre, Summer Theatre of New Canaan, ACT of CT,  Seven Angels Theatre, TheaterWorks/Hartford and Ivoryton Playhouse.

Tony Award-winning set designer Michael Yeargan has been tapped to receive the annual "Tom Killen" award for lifetime achievement in Connecticut theatre.

Rachel Christopher Outstanding Solo performance ("An Iliad") (Long Wharf Theatre)

Two performers have been awarded acting awards out of competition. Rachel Christopher will receive the "Outstanding Solo Performance" award for  her portrayal of The Poet in "An Iliad" at Long Wharf Theatre. The award for "Outstanding Debut" will be given to Kenneth Galm who played Tobias Ragg in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd."

The Connecticut Critic's Circle is a professional organization of writers, critics, columnists, actors, designers, directors and broadcasters representing newspapers, magazines, websites, radio programs, online columns and other social media. Their individual work reaches millions of people throughout Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Massachussets and around the world.

All nominations are submitted via a long list of nominees, which, is later voted upon to fit a short list of contenders (five choices each) in several major categories including Outstanding Play, Outstanding Ensemble and Outstanding Musical.

This year's 2019 nominees are as follows:

"The Engagement Party" at Hartford Stage

Outstanding Play:

"The Engagement Party" (Hartford Stage)

"Twelfth Night" (Yale Rep)

"el Huracan" (Yale Rep)

"Make Believe" (Hartford Stage)

"A Flea in Her Ear" (Westport Country Playhouse")

Outstanding Musical:

"The Music Man" (Goodspeed Musicals)

"In the Heights" (Playhouse on Park)

"Once" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

"In the Heights" (Westport Country Playhouse)

"Man of LaMancha" (Westport Country Playhouse)

Jordan Sobel ("My Name is Asher Lev") (Playhouse on Park) 

Outstanding Actor in a Play:

Zack Appelman ("The Engagement Party") (Hartford Stage)

Jordan Sobel ("My Name is Asher Lev") (Playhouse on Park)

Brad Heberlee ("Make Believe") (Hartford Stage)

Michael Raver ("Cat on a Hot Tin Roof') (Music Theatre of Connecticut)

Marc D. Lyons ("Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?") (Ivoryton Playhouse)

Outstanding Actress in a Play:

Linda Powell ("The Roommate") (Long Wharf Theatre)

Megan Byrne ("Make Believe") (Hartford Stage)

Peggy Cosgrove ("Ripcord") (Seven Angels Theatre)

Andrea Lynn Green ("Cat on a Hot Tin Roof") (Music Theatre of Connecticut)

Marina Re ("Ripcord") (Seven Angels Theatre)

Edward Watts ("The Music Man") (Goodspeed Musicals)

Outstanding Actor in a Musical:

Edward Watts ("The Music Man") (Goodspeed Musicals)

 Philip Hernandez ("Man of La Mancha") (Westport Country Playhouse)

Niko Touros ("In the Heights") (Playhouse on Park)

Terrence Mann ("Sweeney Todd") (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

Rodolfo Soto ("In the Heights") (Westport Country Playhouse)

Donald Corren ("Oliver!") (Goodspeed Musicals)

Outstanding Actress in a Musical:

Ellie Fishman ("The Music Man") (Goodspeed Musicals)

Gisela Adisa ("Man of LaMancha") (Westport Country Playhouse)

Liz Larsen ("Sweeney Todd') (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

Emily Ferranti ("The Mystery of Edwin Drood") (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

Christina Carlucci ("First Date") (Seven Angels Theatre)

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play:

Allen Gilmore ("Twelfth Night") (Yale Rep)

Leon Addison Brown ("Paradise Blue") (Long Wharf Theatre)

Brian Patrick Murphy ( "The Engagement Party") (Hartford Stage)

Dan Shor ("My Name is Asher Lev") (Playhouse on Park)

Mic Matarresse ("A Flea in Her Ear") (Westport Country Playhouse)

Adriana Sevahn Nichols ("el Huracan") (Yale Rep)

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play:

Jennifer Paredes ("el Huracan") (Yale Rep)

Tiffany Denise Hobbs ("Twelfth Night") (Yale Rep)

Brenda Pressley ("Flyin' West")  (Westport Country Playhouse)

Ilia Isorelys Paulino ("Twelfth Night") (Yale Rep)

Adriana Sevahn Nichols ("el Huracan") (Yale Rep)

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical:

Brandon Andrus ("Oliver!") (Goodspeed Musicals)

Ed Dixon ("Sweeney Todd") (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

Jim Schilling ("Cabaret") (Music Theatre of Connecticut)

Blakley and Parker Slaybaugh ("The Drowsy Chaperone") (Goodspeed Musicals)

James Donahue ("First Date") (Seven Angels Theatre)

Alexa Racioppi ("A Chorus Line") (Ivoryton Playhouse) 

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical:

Amy Jo Phillips ("In the Heights") (Playhouse on Park)

Rachel MacIssac ("Kiss Me, Kate") (Summer Theatre of New Canaan)

Stephanie Pope ("In the Heights") (Playhouse on Park)

Anne Kanengeiser ("Cabaret") (Music Theatre of CT)

Alexa Racioppi ("A Chorus Line") (Ivoryton Playhouse)

Outstanding Ensemble:

The Cast of ("The Engagement Party") (Hartford Stage)

The Cast of ("Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense") (Hartford Stage)

The Cast of ("The Revolutionists") (Playhouse on Park")

The Cast of ("Cadillac Crew") (Yale Rep)

The Cast of ("Thousand Pines") (Westport Country Playhouse)

The Cast of ("Altar Boyz") (Seven Angels Theatre)

Mark Lamos ("A Flea in Her Ear") (Westport Country Playhouse)

Outstanding Director of a Play:

Darko Tresnjak ("The Engagement Party") (Hartford Stage)

Mark Lamos ("A Flea in Her Ear") (Westport Country Playhouse)

Laurie Woolery ("el Huracan") (Yale Rep)

Carl Cofield ("Twelfth Night") (Yale Rep)

Jackson Gay ("Make Believe") (Hartford Stage)

Outstanding Director of a Musical:

Jenn Thompson ("The Music Man") (Goodspeed Musicals)

Ben Hope ("Once") (Ivoryton Playhouse)

Marcos Santana ("In the Heights") (Westport Country Playhouse)

Sean Harris ("In the Heights") (Playhouse on Park)

Mark Lamos ("Man of LaMancha") (Westport Country Playhouse)

"In the Heights" at Playhouse on Park

Outstanding Choreography:

Patricia Wilcox (“The Music Man") (Goodspeed Musicals)

Darlene Zoller ( “In the Heights") (Playhouse on Park)

Chris Bailey ("The Drowsy Chaperone") (Goodspeed Musicals)

Charlie Sutton ("Evita") (ACT of CT)

Marcos Santana ("In the Heights")  (Westport Country Playhouse)

Outstanding Projection Design:

Brittany Bland  (“Twelfth Night") (Yale Rep)

Yaara Bar  ("el Huracan")  (Yale Rep)

Caite Hevner  ("Working") (ACT of CT)

Rasean Davonte Johnson  (“Cadillac Crew") (Yale Rep)

"The Engagement Party" at Hartford Stage 

Outstanding Set Design:

Alexander Dodge ("The Engagement Party") (Hartford Stage)

Wilson Chin (“Man of La Mancha") (Westport Country Playhouse)

Adam Koch ("In the Heights") (Westport Country Playhouse)

Paul Tate dePoo III  ("The Music Man") (Goodspeed Musicals)

Kristen Robinson ("A Flea in Her Ear") (Westport Country Playhouse)

Outstanding Costume Design:

 Mika H. Eubanks ("Twelfth Night") (Yale Rep)

Gregg Barnes ("The Drowsy Chaperone") (Goodspeed Musicals)

Brittny Mahan ("The Mystery of Edwin Drood") (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

 David Toser ("The Music Man") (Goodspeed Musicals)

Herin Kaputkin ("el Huracan") (Yale Rep)

Outstanding Lighting Design:

Matthew Richards ("The Engagement Party") (Hartford Stage)

John Lasiter ("Oliver!" ) (Goodspeed Musicals)

Samuel Kwan Chi Chan ("Twelfth Night") (Yale Rep)

Alan C. Edwards ("Man of La Mancha") (Westport Country Playhouse)

Paul Miller ("The Music Man”) (Goodspeed Musicals)

"Twelfth Night" at Yale Rep

Outstanding Sound Design:

Joshua D. Reid (“Girlfriend”) (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

Frederick Kennedy ( “Twelfth Night") (Yale Rep)

Lee Kinney ("An Iliad") (Long Wharf Theatre)

 Michael Vincent Skinner (“Sweeney Todd”) (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

Megumi Katayama (“el Huracan”) (Yale Rep) 

"From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 165, A Review: "The Music Man" (Goodspeed Musicals)

By James V. Ruocco

No amount of good cheer has been left unturned by director Jenn Thompson in Goodspeed Musicals' thrilling, affectionate revival of Meredith Wilson's 1957 Broadway classic  "The Music Man." It is yet another one of those musical productions that has gone full tilt with its ambitious, storytelling strategies, drenched in soft, rainbow colors that dazzle, sparkle and explode like a vintage fireworks display on the Fourth of July. Thompson wouldn't have it any other way.


It has the fizz and taste of homemade lemonade on a hot summer afternoon. It has the snap and giddy up of a 1912 vintage musical scrapbook magically brought to life. It also has the good sense to remain faithful to its original source, its ice cream parlor values and traditions and its past remembered innocence, hospitality, kinship and Iowa stubborn abandon.

With music, lyrics and book by Meredith Wilson, "The Music Man" revisits River City, Iowa and retells the oft-told story of Harold Hill, a fast-talking traveling salesman, womanizer and con artist who sells band instruments and uniforms to young boys and teenagers with the promise of big band glory days and pageantry.

One small problem: He can't read a note of music, much less conduct a full band concert before a very excited, live audience.

What he can do, however, is turn an entire town upside down, charm his way into everyone's lives, then, finally skip town with their hard-earned money faster than you can say John Philip Sousa.

Jenn Thompson who staged both "Oklahoma!" and "Bye, Bye Birdie" for Goodspeed Musicals and most recently, "A Doll's House, Part 2" for TheaterWorks/Hartford, is the perfect fit for "The Music Man."  A creative talent who is always looking for new ways to reinvent the standard book Broadway musical of yesteryear, Thompson adds her own layer of nostalgia and whimsy to the production, but finds new ways, new emotions and new textures to heighten her retelling of an already great show.
Here, she brings a great sense of pride, passion, equality and commitment to the musical, thus, making it much more profound, curious, timely and ground-breaking. It's the same story, yes, but through her eyes, you see it much more differently, which is meant entirely as a compliment.

Staging the two-act musical, Thompson knows exactly what she wants, when to take a breath, when to take a pause, when to let things pop and when to get the adrenaline flowing. Here, as in "Oklahoma!" set changes, musical numbers, conversations, dances and sound and light cues are expertly timed and reenacted without the slightest hesitation. Having the actors enter and exit up and down the aisles of the actual theater (when necessary, that is) gives the production a three-dimensional thrust, feel and intimacy that works to full advantage. Elsewhere, she gives this production a steady heartbeat and pulse that heightens the show's enjoyment, its musicality, its early 20th century flourishes and its gosh-oh-gee playfulness and sentiment.

"The Music Man" features  24 musical numbers. They are "Rock Island," "Iowa Stubborn," "Ya Got Trouble," "If You Don't Mind My Saying So," "Goodnight, My Someone," "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean," "Ya  Got Trouble (Reprise)," "Seventy-Six Trombones," "Sincere," "The Sadder But Wiser Girl," "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little/Goodnight Ladies," "Marian the Librarian," "My White Knight," "The Wells Fargo Wagon," "It's You," "Shipoopi," "Pick-a-Little, Talk a-Little (reprise), Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You?" "Gary, Indiana," "Lida Rose (reprise)," "Till There Was You," "Goodnight, My Someone & Seventy-Six Trombones (reprise)," "Till There Was You" (reprise) and "Finale."

As devised by Wilson, the score itself is rich, ripe, round and booming. It unfolds with the breezy, broad and playful tap and lyricism that befits the story, its evolution and the characters who sing them. It is also uniquely its own - magical, moving, bashful and powerful. And even after countless hearings - it was written 62 years ago - it still packs a splash, bang, wallop that's impossible to resist.

Serving as musical director for "The Music Man" Michael O' Flaherty puts his own personal stamp on the popular score and hones a meticulously crafted work that's sweet and sentimental, focused and  driven, melodic and tuneful. No camp. No goo. No candy floss. No sugar. Under his tutelage, every one of the songs is completely realized and envisioned to let you see and hear it all the more clearly.

Working alongside his exceptional orchestral team ( F. Wade Russo (keyboard), Sal Ranniello (percussion), Andrew Studenski (reed), William J. Thomas (trumpet), Peter Roe (trombone), Matthew Russo (violin), Karin Fagerburg (reed) and Liz Baker Smith (reed), O'Flaherty brings considerable charm, warmth and color to the popular Meredith Wilson score. Everything that happens in this revival is uncorked with feeling and sentiment. Musical numbers including "Iowa Stubborn," "Seventy-Six Trombones," "The Wells Fargo Wagon," "Rock Island" and "Shipoopi" are rhythmically crisp and energetic throughout and filled with enough detail to make them pop and resonate as Wilson intended.

Patricia Wilcox's dance movement and choreography for "The Music Man" is sweet, atmospheric, nostalgic and flavorful. It has a wonderful fluidity about it, which serves the material well. It is perfectly in sync with the era itself and radiates a vintage storybook charm reflective of both the 1962 film that starred Robert Preston and Shirley Jones and the 2000 Broadway revival with Craig Bierko and Rebecca Luker. It is both unique and inventive. It is all in good fun. It is also decidedly different, most noticeably in the opening parts of "Iowa Stubborn," which recalls "Ascot Gavotte" from "My Fair Lady" and various portions of the re-imagined "Marian the Librarian" and "Shipoopi." Regardless, it works splendidly and adds additional shading and nuance to these already popular musical numbers.

Casting "The Music Man," Thompson is in her element. As with "Oklahoma!" and "Bye, Bye Birdie," she has cast the production particularly well using actors and actresses who are plum perfect for the individual roles they are asked to portray. This, in turn, gives the musical a much more honed, realistic aura that works, excites and draws us deep into the Iowa-honed mentality of the River City town folk, their story, their music, their singing, their dancing and their dialogue.

As Harold Hill, the very polished and charismatic Edward Watts, an actor who bears a striking resemblance to a very youngish Roger Moore takes us down a very different path than the one created by Robert Preston in the original 1957 Broadway production and the subsequent 1962 film adaptation. Granted, he's not as slippery, calculating or as brazen as Preston's Hill was, but he still captures the magnetism and pulse of the character, his overt womanizing, his calculated risk-taking and his refusal to see the error of his ways until he finally meets and falls in love with a woman who makes him see the wrongness of his fake identity, fake charm and fake boy's band.
At Goodspeed, he takes charge of the role in smart, savvy actor/audience fashion from the moment he is introduced to everyone in the showstopping, invigoratingly staged "Rock Island" at the start of the show. He sings beautifully. He dances beautifully. He turns women's heads with a magical mischievous grin that melts them to butter. He also gives Hill a strong sense of style and purpose that befits the story and his role in it.

Ellie Fishman, in the role of Marian Paroo, the town librarian and music teacher who suspects Hill of being a genuine, complete fraud, brings a strongness and take-charge mindset to the role, which heightens her presence in the story and makes her eventual romance with the fast-talking music man much more interesting, palpable and believable. Her rich, lilting soprano voice not only heightens the melodic allure of "Goodnight, My Someone"  and "My White Knight," but as a singer, she finds the intended meaning behind every lyric and lets it carry her away most engagingly.

Exceptional performances are also delivered by Juson Williams as Marcellus Washburn, Amelia White as Mrs. Paroo, Stephanie Pope as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, Raynor Rubel as Tommy Djlias, D.C. Anderson as Mayor Shinn, Alexander O'Brien as Winthrop Paroo, Shawn Alynda Fisher as Zanetta Shinn, Danny Lindgren as Charlie Cowell and Katie Wylie as Amaryllis.
And finally, there's "The Music Man" Quartet, a full-voiced, harmonious group of men played with creative aplomb by Branch Woodman, C. Mingo Long, Jeff Gurner and Kent Overshown. Are they magnificent? Oh, yes and so much more.

Light, fluffy and heartfelt, "The Music Man" is an uplifting musical entertainment of incredible energy, frivolity and living, breathing nostalgia. The songs are lively, spirited and character-driven. The dancing is spectacular. The performances are fresh and full-bodied. The direction is rich, flavorful and fancy free. And the show itself creates a tapestry of good cheer and merriment so memorable, when you leave the theater, it's almost as if you're walking on air.

Photos of "The Music Man" courtesy of Diane Sobolewski

"The Music Man" is being staged at the Goodspeed (6 Main St., East Haddam, CT), now through June 20.
For tickets or more information, please call (860) 873-8668
website: goodspeed.org

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 164, A Review: "The Full Monty" (Downtown Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

It's more than just gags about exposing your willy, baring your bum and taking off your clothes a la striptease.

The musical version of "The Full Monty," which takes its cue from the popular 1997 British film of the same name  tells the same story -  six unemployed steel workers decide to stage a one night only strip act for hard cash - with a big reveal that leaves them buck naked and full frontal amidst howls, screams, applause, cheers and standing ovations from a very excited audience.

A bit more than a cheap thrill, "The Full Monty," is ridiculously good fun for enthusiastic theatergoers hungry for bare skin, bare butts and plenty of cheeky jokes about body workouts, male sweat, male genitalia, urination, heterosexual couplings, four-letter words, erections and sexy male models and strippers with perfectly honed bodies, who, just happen to be gay.

This isn't "My Fair Lady," Oklahoma!" or "The Sound of Music."
It's "The Full Monty."
So what you see - and trust me, there's a lot to see- is strictly intentional.

At the Downtown Cabaret where "The Full Monty" is enjoying a very healthy revival, the musical, which includes some iconic lines from the Simon Beaufoy screenplay,  is full of laughter, heart, warmth and vitality. It is quick, playful and organic. It never runs out of steam. It knows exactly what it is and where it is going. And finally, it's a genuine crowd pleaser with nothing more on its mind to entertain, which it does, ever so convincingly.

Staging "The Full Monty" is Andrea Pane who also appears in the production as a professional male stripper named Buddy "Keno" Walsh," who, has no trouble letting it all hang out, given some pretty fancy dance moves by choreographer Jennifer Kaye. Making his DCT mainstage debut, Pane rocks the stage, so to speak, with a fond, often outrageous appreciation for the material which, when unleashed, lets the musical glide, thrill, excite and titillate.

As "The Full Monty" evolves, Pane's direction is relaxed, cheery, rebellious and ribald. The show is stocked with characters who fit the bill for this sort of musical nonsense, but never once does Pane treat them as stereotypes. Instead, he respects them, has fun with them and paints them in big, broad, strong colors, which makes every single one of them stand out. He is also mindful of the show's original conceit, as laid out by Terrence McNally who wrote the book for the musical. It also takes balls to pull off the show's final striptease scene, but working alongside Kaye, the duo craft a frenzied wild ride that unfolds with just the right amount of in-your-face brashness to carry the show's fearless six to "Magic Mike" glory.

Kaye, as choreographer, not only nails the striptease choreography with energetic flourish, but brings infused, isolated fun to the show's non-strip musical numbers. The cast, in turn, have great fun with her snappy, sexy dance moves, maneuvers and pairings, thus, making each and every one of them stand out with the pulse and musicality envisioned by the show's creators.

Featuring music and lyrics by David Yasbek, "The Full Monty" uncorks 14 musical numbers under the deft musical direction of Tom Conroy (also at the piano) and his tremendously talented orchestral team of Michael Mosca (guitar), Gary Ruggiero (reeds), Fedel Volpe (trumpet), Rodger Post (drums) and Joe Sinaguglia (bass).
They are "Scrap," "It's a Woman's World," "Man," "Big Ass Rock," "Life With Harold," "Big Black Man," "You Rule My World," "Michael Jordan's Ball," "Jeanette's Showbiz Number," "Breeze Off the River," "The Goods," "You Walk With Me," "You Rule My World (Reprise)" and  "Let It Go."
The songs themselves, are serviceable to the story and the characters who sing them, but this is not traditional Broadway musical fare. Not exactly hummable stuff, the musical numbers, nonetheless, are accessible, plot-driven and entertaining. But the minute they are over, they are quickly forgotten.

In the role of Jerry Lukowski, originated in the 2000 Broadway production by Patrick Wilson, Equity actor David Webb is the real deal. He gets the character. He understands the character. As an actor, he owns the character. Like Wilson, he is likeable, charming, carefree and passionate. There's also a refreshing honesty and touching reality to his performance, offset by a well-honed, melodic set of vocal chops that complement Jerry's many vocals, including "Scrap," the show's opening anthem about unemployment and lost opportunities and the sweet, tender-hearted ballad "Breeze Off the River," which figures prominently in Act II.

Brendan Garrett hams it up most agreeably as Noah "Horse" Simmons and nearly stops the show with his edgy, raucous rendition of "Big Black Man" in much the same way as Andre DeShields did in the original Broadway production. Malcolm and Eddie, played respectively by Max Helfand and Jeff Jannitto, offer sweet, confident performances as two young men who announce their budding homosexual relationship in Act II with the bittersweet reprise of "You Walk With Me." Lauren Bell as Pam Lukowski and Margaret Buzak as Vicki Nichols bring a real sense of purpose and commitment to their housewife roles whenever they are on stage. They are engaged and invested, both musically and performance wise and contribute greatly to the evening's channelled enjoyment.

In conclusion, "The Full Monty" has a lot going for it. It is a fitting conclusion to Downtown Cabaret's 2018-2019 season of shows, which included the gumdrop gooey "Legally Blonde" and the syrupy-sweet "Annie." Its funny, in-your-face humor is fully realized. The cast is in top form. And during the last five minutes or so when the unemployed underdogs get their kit off, a lot of cheek goes a very long way much to the delight of every excited, cheering female in the audience. It simply cannot be helped.

Photos of "The Full Monty" courtesy of Richard Pettibone/Ghostlight Photography

"The Full Monty" is being staged at Downtown Cabaret (263 Golden Hill St., Bridgeport, CT), now through May 19.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 576-1636.
website: dtcab.com

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 163, A Review: "The Waffle House Five" (Pantochino Productions)

By James V. Ruocco

The story itself is a true one.

Edward Seward, a regular customer at the Grand Bay, Alabama Waffle House, was a kindly gentleman who would drive across the state line into Florida and buy a bunch of "Quick Pick" lottery tickets, which he would give "for free" to family, friends, loved ones and his favorite employees at the Waffle House.

Om March 6, 1999, the day of the big lottery drawing, three Waffle House employees checked their tickets, but sadly, none of them held the winning numbers. The next day, however, two other co-workers did the same thing and one of them, Tonda Lynn Dickerson, held the winning ticket worth $10 million, which she and everyone else agreed to split if they were ever to win the jackpot.

Sadly, Dickerson had a change of heart and refused to hand over any of her winnings to her Waffle House friends and co-workers. They, in turn, sued her and took her to court, alleging that there had always been a verbal agreement to split any monetary winnings among them.

Their story, their fight, their work ethic and their court case, which includes the legal outcome according to Alabama state law (sorry folks, no spoilers here), have been set to music by Bert Bernardi and Justin Rugg in "The Waffle House Five," a smash-bang-wallop of an entertainment that makes for big, bold, heartfelt storytelling, enveloped in comfort, kitsch, candy coating and a pocketbook of good cheer.

Home Spun.

"The Waffle House Five" is a sweet, kind-hearted production that has the colorfulness of an off-Broadway musical and a West End fringe music hall confection, all rolled up into one. It hops. It jumps. It skips. It giggles. It provides a sugar rush of penny sweets. It distributes hearty portions of laughter, smiles and tears. It also puts that sweet smell of comfort food - in this case, waffles - right out the kitchen door and onto the table, front and center, for all to enjoy.

Staging and directing the two-act musical, Bert Bernardi brings the Waffle House story thrillingly alive with confidence, sensitivity, chutzpah, amusement and good, old-fashioned charm. As the story evolves, there's a home-spun naturalism to the piece, which when shaken and stirred, reveals apt doses of humor, surprise and poignancy of every possible shade. He has fun. We have fun. He smiles. We smile. He goes for the punchline. We get it and wait for another. He toys with our senses. We willingly go along for the ride. He changes direction. We sit back attentively wondering what's going to happen next.

As the plot thickens, Bernardi also brings a sense of mystery to the project, in particular, the actual court case and the winning lottery ticket. We, in turn, anxiously await the verdict wondering who's telling the truth, who's lying, who's got each other's back, who's going down and how is everything  going to play out. We also see that Alabama is a state that has certain rules regarding oral contracts, gambling and gift giving. To say anything more, however, would spoil the fun and dampen the musical's amusing, surprising conclusion.

Here, as in last year's "Glitz," Bernardi brings a ripened exactness to  "The Waffle House Five," which allows it to breathe, settle and take shape. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is thrown in for extra measure. Nothing is staged as an afterthought. Nothing occurs out of the ordinary. In terms of story board advancement, Bernardi does sterling work to punctuate the key elements of the plot and thrust it forward with considerable ambition and technique.

Musically, the production is gleeful, energetic and bursting with delightfulness.

For "The Waffle House Five," Justin Rugg (music) and Bernardi (lyrics) have composed a playful, poignant and savory score of 12 musical numbers. They are: "Good Morning," "Little Red Pick Up Truck," "If We Hit It We Split It," " Winning Don't Mean Anything," "Better or Worse," "Girl Talk," "Doll," "Waffle House Five," "All Rise," "Mistakes," "Dreams" and "Exactly Who I Am." The songs themselves, all carefully chosen and tucked neatly into the framework of the story, are loaded with imagination, humor, sentiment, pathos and variety show camp. They also come gift wrapped with lyrics that are so clever and so witty, you can't help but marvel at Bernardi's ingenuity. Moreover, they're not just words on a sheet of paper. They're words that have meanings, values and many connotations. Big difference!
As composer, Rugg's music takes off with musical abandon and remarkable clarity. He knows exactly what he wants and he runs with it. He also knows how to shift moods, command attention, push boundaries and add additional nuance when necessary. In turn, nothing gets lost in the translation. Doubling as musical director, he moves "The Waffle House Five" cast from one musical number to the next most engagingly. Everyone is in perfect pitch, reveling in the musical's charms and abundant wit and sentimentality. All of the musical numbers, from solos to ensemble turns, are sung brilliantly. And when it comes time to harmonize, Rugg delivers a clean, crisp harmonious sound, rife with excitement and enthusiasm that serves the material and the story well.

"The Waffle House Five" stars Marci Bing, Mary Mannix, Maria Berte, Rachelle Ianniello, Justin Rugg, Shelley Marsh Poggio, Don Poggio, Jimmy Johansmeyer, George Spelvin, Valerine Solli and Peighton Mash. As actors, everyone is outstanding individually or working opposite one another as one big ensemble. Given the show's comedic, heartwarming and musical premise, its creators give each and every one his or her moment to shine as "The Waffle House Five" moves from scene to scene with wicked delight. The talent, the gusto, the realness and the spirit of this entire group heighten's the production's merriment and its interconnecting stories and musicality. Taking hold of the material they are asked to perform, their level of trust, dedication, talent and performance is uncanny. Their southern drawl is inspired and sunny as is their down-home, welcoming charm. They love what they do 100 percent and it shows.

In the plum role of Jaycee Rae, the part modeled after the real-life Dickerson, Mary Mannix oozes charm, cold heartedness and venom so convincingly, you hope and pray her nasty Alabama scheming will get the best of her. No matter. It's a full-bodied, invigorating performance chock full of heated moments, emotional solos, barbed commentary and cat fights that the actress has great fun with. She also gives new meaning to the term "first-class bitch." Then again, that's the point, isn't it?

As Miss Lucy, Marci Bing is the real deal - hospitable, bubbly, welcoming, friendly - all characteristics that she plays so perfectly, one eagerly awaits her very entrance, her welcoming narration, her sweet-natured, insightful commentary and her natural comic vibes. Jimmy Johansmeyer, wearing a wig and looking like an outcast from the musical "Hair," delivers a memorable comic turn as Jaycee Rae's slippery, nasty, cheating husband. As Matthew, the charming and likeable Waffle House manager, Justin Rugg looks and acts as if he was plucked right out of the real-like Grand Bay, Alabama establishment and brought to Pantochino Productions via Doctor Who's Tardis.
In the role of the effervescent Angela, Rachelle Ianniello. never misses a comic beat. She's charming, funny, bubbly and personable. She's also completely in sync with Bernardi's wholesome and welcoming conceit for the musical. Maria Berte is well cast as the reverent Sandra and brings requisite southern charm and zest to the part and to the presentation. Shelley Marsh Poggio, as the cheeky, outspoken waitress Jackie, offers yet another sparkling musical performance, chock full of wit, vibe, spunk and personality. She can play any form of comedy inside out, top to bottom, left to right and front and center. Her comic timing and line delivery is priceless. What stage presence!

"The Waffle House Five" is a fun celebration of food, waitressing, friendship, greed, money, backstabbing, southern cooking, dreams, gossip and womanhood. It is a joyful experience for all, staged and directed with comic snap by "Waffle House" creator Bert Bernardi. The music is tuneful and delightful. The performances are real and energetic. The story is based, in part, on fact. And when all is said and done, you might have a hankering for a plate of homemade waffles smothered in butter and maple syrup or decide to take a quick run to your favorite convenience store to purchase a "Quick Pick" lottery ticket or two.

PS: For Pantochino Productions, all the names of  characters have been the changed for obvious reasons. And the setting has been changed from Grand Bay to Flat Bay, Alabama.

Photos of "The Waffle House Five" courtesy of KVON Photography

"The Waffle House Five" is being staged at Pantochino Productions (Milford Arts Council, 40 Railroad Ave., Milford, CT), now through May 19.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 937-6206.
website: pantochino.com